Nights in Cambridge

March 22, 2020

With its stunning architecture and quaint streets, this university town is any sightseer’s dream. A diary entry about a cycle journey

Mathematical Bridge at Queens’ College.

January 3rd, 2020. Cambridge

It is 5pm and the librarian politely tells me they are closing, the term hasn’t started yet and the building will not stay open for long either. I had been waiting for an excuse to leave anyway, one that would not make me reconsider if I should have left this early.

I gladly pack my belongings, borrow a book, despite knowing there are unfinished ones staring at me from the lone bookshelf in my room. Even during the winter holidays course-work inspired guilt. I unlock my bicycle and ride down Hills Road. The air is cold but my coat offers protection against the wind, milder today than most days, the skin on my face stiffens and my nose moistens.

I cycle over the bridge, somehow on the journey back it does not feel as steep as it always does in the opposite direction. I know a bridge is supposed to be symmetrical so it has to do something with motivation, but I find comfort in assuming it must be otherwise.

There are very few cars, vacations have not yet ended. The city is quiet in a very peaceful way. I ride towards The Church of Our Lady and The English Martyrs wishing the traffic light is red. If it isn’t I won’t be able to cycle past the buses and get in front of the line and yet again miss cycling down Regent Street. The Church is never visible from the road as there are buses on the left, an outline of a dark spire can be made out against an even darker sky if I look hard enough and know what to look for.

On a regular day during the term, the traffic in the left lane pushes me to take a different and less picturesque route. Today I am more fortunate. An otherwise busy place with warm cafes and packed restaurants appears lonely. The blinking neon sign of one of the clubs seems out of place; there is no queue and a sharp silence where there is always a crowd and laughter.

I wait at the traffic signal at St Andrew’s Street, I have never gone down Downing Street leading onto Pembroke Street, even though it will be a shortcut. Some choices do not need reasons. There is a slight bend after John Lewis; no buses or taxis are parked there today so I don’t have to look back and sign to oncoming cars- and there are none to my relief.

On my right is Lloyd’s and on my left is Boots; I know my shampoo sputters out after much squeezing and I need to visit the bank. Certain awareness does not influence decisions. Despite the absence of pedestrians I do not turn left, a mistake I used to make until I was told that this is a one-way street even for bicycles.

Archway on Silver Street.

Sidney Street is narrow but lively, even today when the city is sleepy and calm, here are a few absorbed in conversations striding purposefully. I glance at Sainsbury’s, there is no milk in my fridge, honestly, there isn’t much else either. For a brief moment, I wonder what my culinarily gifted friend might be eating; her ability to fix a meal in a very short time amazes me as does her generosity.

Twice during the term, my shelf in the fridge was full, the rest of the time it has had to cope with perpetual emptiness in a rather cold climate. I don’t want to break speed so I decide, using what Kahneman called System 1, to get milk from the grocery store closer to my place. It is a faulty unconscious decision as reason would dictate spending less.

The Round Church is on the right and I turn left. There is a homeless man sitting upright on the pavement, his belongings stacked under him. I instinctively speed up, I know I need to have a conversation with my morality, but I have been putting it off for a while now. The Chapel at St John’s is almost always lit, the stained glass windows add colour to an otherwise grey and reddish-brown landscape. The light inside the Chapel and the painted Saints on the windows seem welcoming.

I remember reading about the interplay of light and faith and the architectural manifestation of this link in religious spaces in Rowan Moore’s Why We Build; the integration of a physical phenomenon in the metaphysical world of spirituality. I make a mental note to understand the meaning of the images painted on the majestic windows.

I cycle over the bridge, somehow on the journey back it does not feel as steep as it always does in the opposite direction. I know a bridge is supposed to be symmetrical so it has to do something with motivation, but I find comfort in assuming it must be otherwise.

The next stretch is comparatively darker and I am lost in thought of a different but more familiar world. I am reminded of Lahore’s Mall. There is no similarity in architecture, the two reflect different centuries and disparate architectural influences, but somehow it is the most British a street in building style as any I know of in Lahore; the memory naturally springs up.

I know the lay of that stretch of the city by heart, from Quaid-i-Azam Library till Lahore High Court, my father’s office is in that direction and I cannot count the times I have been there since I was a child. Having always been in the passenger seat, I have never had to concentrate on the traffic ahead. My mother drives me around, a fact that my colleagues ensured I should feel guilty about.

But I grew immune to opinions, driving me to work gave her a routine and I got to spend quality time with her, much to my sister’s envy. There are dynamics that are not for others to understand, judge as they may. The traffic in Lahore overwhelms me, I have accepted my choice to avoid driving and divorced this from the idea that this is a reflection of my agency. I know better than to construct the human, machine and power debate around driving.

I try to bring The Mall to memory and I am taken aback by what I visualise. Unlike my view from Hills Road to, by now, Gonville and Caius; my view of it is obscured by the roof of the car. I try to remember the image of the top of the buildings, but there is no top that I can imagine for it is not part of my mental image. I can visualise the complete building Ferozsons was located in, the white relatively modern building next to the Secretariat (the traffic light is next to it so I have seen it the longest), as well as Dyal Singh Mansion and the GPO.

There is a pavement all the way up to High Court, I can faintly remember pedestrians walking; rationality compels me to, whether this is a false memory overlaid on a mere assumption I do not know. I am a woman and I have never walked on The Mall, both are facts. No causality is assumed, no excuse is offered; I am aware of my relative privileges. I have a vicarious memory of the way the adjoining roads turn only because of Ghulam Abbas’s Overcoat.

The cobbled street in front of Senate House forces me back into awareness of my surroundings. The sight of King’s at night holds me in awe, I have not become used to it. It stands there, unabashed in all its glory, the yellow light from the lamps in the corridor make the stone arches gleam. I want to watch the Cambridge Spies again, but I don’t have access to it. Reason got the better of me and I did not bring with me the hard-drive it was in. The cafes across are either closed for customers or their patrons had other plans tonight. I turn right from Ede and Ravenscroft, reminded of the scene shot inside the store in the same series where Tom Hollander attempts picking a tie.

Senate House Passage.

The lights in the window display are always on; brightening an otherwise dark turning. Red brick walls, higher than my line of sight are on either side until I reach the bridge on the river where the road widens and the cityscape changes. The juxtaposition of old and new ends and from here onwards it is the present and not history. I am logically, but not experientially, aware that there is water underneath this bridge; I have never stood along the parapet and looked down, I have taken this one for granted. I wonder what this bridge has witnessed and if its narrative can be painted as vividly as Ivo Andric painted of the Bridge on The Drina.

Left I go, all the way down till the roundabout, without looking on either side. The road is empty and I am in my lane. Fortunately, there are no incoming vehicles from any direction and I do not have to impatiently wait to go forward. The purple and yellow flickering board on the mouth-watering food truck can be seen from a distance, going past it I want to hold my breath.

I am hungry, or as Pooh used to say; there’s a rumbly in my tumbly (a phrase I would never repeat in my waking hours around grown-ups). Alas, I am keenly aware of my ineptitude at gustatory survival. I do not wish to make eating from here a habit; neither prudence nor my means allow me to, I resist the urge to stop. After the crossing is the grocery store where a bottle of milk awaits me.

I get back on, make sure I have switched on the lights. The milk bottle in the cycle basket makes me rebalance to gain momentum. There are few dim streetlights, as this is a residential area. I remember how alienated I felt during my first week here, I used to walk then. I never take the road that goes straight to where I am supposed to be; there is a pitch dark bend best avoided – a detail I conveniently censored in conversations with my mother whose number one will always be Agatha Christie.

Instead, I turn left on the street where the row houses are. The road is lined by cars on both sides, the light from reading rooms lightens up the street. It is strange to suddenly notice that the streetlamp is dimly lit, yet there is no darkness. The corner one has the warmest library, the lamp is always on and the curtains always parted. Today the sky is clear, distractingly full of stars, I relent, I look up long enough for friction from the road to halt the spinning tyres. I remember wanting to finish Carl Sagan’s Cosmos more than a year ago but something always got in the way. It then became one of the forever bedside books that struggle to compete for your attention during the day, other books are so effortlessly prioritised.

I turn left one last time to enter the place temporarily mine.

The writer is sitting at her desk, feet resting on a cardboard shoebox-her makeshift footstool

Nights in Cambridge